Managing pupil’s exam anxiety is something I often get asked about, both by parents and teachers; in fact, teachers themselves can experience exam anxiety as they negotiate their way through this high-pressured time in school. On top of that, they also want to be able to support their pupil’s needs and meet targets, so looking after teacher’s well-being is imperative as well.
Today though I have been asked to focus on the pupil’s themselves.
Firstly, let’s address the fact that feeling anxious, nervous and stressed about exams is a normal biological response to these circumstances. A healthy amount of stress, experiencing it, working through it and coming through the other side can help emotional resilience and development. That being said, it’s important to reflect on our environments and interactions and ask the question, “Is this stress turning toxic?”
Toxic stress is damaging for children and young people’s development (you can find out more about this in the documentary ‘Resilience: The Biology of stress and the science of hope’ or by seeking out the work of Bessel Van der Kolk and Dr. Bruce D. Perry ) and mental health, but the pressure for results can easily lead us onto a pathway that can create an unhealthy amount of exam anxiety and stress.
In order for children to achieve in ‘specific’ areas of learning and development, the foundations on which they are built need to be strong and therefore during times of stress, may need underpinning. Science tells us that by supporting children’s ‘prime’ areas of development we are also supporting their ability to learn, engage and retain.
So what can we do?
If we stop to reflect a little it could be easily interpreted that their revision and exams are THE most important thing, and that they must take priority over everything else. They shouldn’t. Intervention should therefore be done mindfully and with careful consideration of the ‘opportunity cost’ to each individual pupil, and not just to meet their FFT target.
We owe it to this generation to help them understand that working hard is important, striving for success is brilliant, and also, that in order for them to have success long-term, their health and their prime areas, should not be neglected or sacrificed during periods of stress but instead be nurtured. They can learn to listen to their stress and respond in a way that helps them to deal with it.
Don’t encourage pupils to sacrifice their game of football or socialising at lunchtime. Play is an easy way for children and young people to manage stress.
Try setting some ‘downtime’ activity suggestions as homework.
Utilise PSHE lessons to talk about emotions and emotional health, using safe emotional literacy strategies.
Don’t compare pupils to each other. We all have a different story, background, support systems and strengths, adding shame, embarrassment or guilt onto a pupil will never make a situation better and can potentially make things a lot worse; even if it feels like it’s an easy short-term solution.
Meet each child where they are and not where you expect them to be.
Get outside when possible. Do you have a suitable outdoor space that you can utilise to deliver information? Can you create revision sessions in a way that will engage a different part of their brain, for example: creative rap-lyrics, a treasure hunt or physical game.
Can you model how to take proper revision breaks in class? After 45 minutes ask them to take a break, have a drink of water and a walk round the classroom and stretch. Could you invite them to lean against a wall or try some breathing exercises (remember to ask them if they’d like to participate and never enforce children to close their eyes)?
Let them know that there are many different types of intelligence and success can be determined in different ways. When given the right relationships and support to develop the self-belief and esteem we will continue to grow and thrive.
Lastly, relationship. The best and only way for children to be able to cope with stress, toxic or otherwise is by having strong relationships and connections. Listen to how they feel, you don’t have to agree or fix anything for them but empathise and actively listen. Allow them to be seen and heard. It sometimes only takes a few short, good quality interactions to make a difference.
If in doubt, ask yourself this:
“What do I need from other people when I am experiencing anxiety and stress? What do I need from my boss when I feel that way in the workplace?”
Be kind to yourself, ensure you have time to look after YOUR prime areas too, give them a little TLC during this time and if you have concerns or need help please start by looking on the links below.